This is the first of a two-part series that will explore the legacy of Queen Nzinga, the iconic defender of Ndongo and Matamba and possibly the greatest figure in the history of Angola.
In 1583, eight years after the Portuguese established their first colony in what is Angola today, Kengela ka Nkombe, the favourite concubine of Ngola (king) of Ndongo, Kilombo Kia Kasenda, was in labour. The baby, a girl, was born healthy and full of vitality, but the birth was difficult, and notably, princess Nzinga was born with her umbilical cord tied around her neck, indicating that she would grow up to be a powerful and proud individual. She was the king's favourite child, and since women did not hold royal power in Ndongo, he could lavish his attention on her without worrying about political implications. The young princess was trained in military and political affairs, frequently outperforming her male counterparts, and destined as she was for greatness, few at the time would have predicted the legacy that Queen Nzinga of Ndongo, Mother and Protector of the people of Angola, would leave behind.
Statue of Queen Nzinga in Luanda, Angola.
In the late 16th century, much of Central and West Africa was dominated by the Kingdom of Kongo, which also held sway over the other, smaller tributary kingdoms in the region, including Ndongo. By the start of the century, contact with the Portuguese had already introduced Christianity, which was patronized by the State, and slave trade had been begun. This initial relationship, which was based on religion and economics, soon began to take a more sinister turn as Portugal slowly began to take control of the African continent.
Queen Nzinga was one of the first to stand up to European imperialism, and her legacy is a major contribution to African pride.
Ndongo had long tried to maintain a careful web of relations in the region to safeguard and attempt to improve its own status. In 1575, the Portuguese were allowed to establish a colony in Luanda, the present-day capital of Angola. Since written records are hard to come by, details can be difficult to come by, but throughout the 16th century, Ndongo had attempted to enlist Portuguese aid to shake themselves free of Kongo’s influence, but little came of the efforts. As political intrigues were woven between the states of Central Africa and the Portuguese empire, marauding bands of mercenaries, known as Imbangala, had established their own military society, proving to be an unpredictable, and powerful, wildcard in the region.
Queen Nzinga, in her iconic embassy to the Portuguese, took the conscious decision to ensure she wore the resplendent clothing of her people to highlight African culture and pride in it. We could not be more proud to continue the tradition.
Nzinga’s father was enveloped in a crisis. Facing hostility from the Portuguese, Kongo, and the Imbangala, he was failing to hold the kingdom together. At home, her brother, who ascended the throne in 1617, had long harboured insecurity and resentment against his sister who frequently outshone him. And so Ngola Mbandi had his sister forcibly sterilized, and her only child, an infant son murdered, prompting her to flee to the neighbouring kingdom of Matamba. For a lesser individual, this would likely have been the last chapter of a tragic story. But Nzinga’s tale was yet to begin. For five years, little is known about her life in Matamba, but back home, Ngola Mbandi, although secure in his position, was not proving any more effective against the Portuguese than his father had been. Remembering that his sister was taught to read and write Portuguese as a child by missionaries, and was fluent in the language, he recalled her from exile and sent her as an ambassador to help negotiate a favourable treaty.
Queens of Africa by Kadir Watson. Queen Nzinga left an indelible impact on the history of Africans, and women, proving that they can prevail, even with the odds stacked against them. In the hundred years after her death, at least eighty were spent under women rulers. Women in Angola even today enjoy remarkable social independence as part of her legacy and she is one of the most important figures in creating an Angolan identity.
In this first public act, she chose to forego western clothing when meeting the Portuguese, making a point to show that her own culture was in no way inferior to that of the Europeans. When she arrived, chairs had been laid out for the Portuguese alone, and natives like her were expected to sit on a mat and accept subordinate status. Naturally, this was unacceptable, and Nzinga, ever the face of dignity and regality, had one of her soldiers act as her chair as she discussed terms with the colonizers, as equals. But most importantly, where the men of Ndongo had been failing for years, Nzinga prevailed. She successfully argued that her kingdom was not a vassal or tributary state, but an independent, sovereign entity, and as such, the Ndongo would pay no tribute, and accept no subordinate status. In return, Nzinga agreed to get baptized and open trade routes to the Portuguese, presenting herself as a trustworthy friend to the Europeans. In fact, she even became the godchild of the Portuguese Governor of Angola.
This historic victory, however, did not last. Success with the Portuguese was accompanied by relations with the Imbangala collapsing. In the ensuing violence, the Ngola himself had to flee the Court. The Portuguese, claiming that no sovereignty could be claimed by a king in exile, continued to raid Ndongo territory, and for the Ndongo, things had never looked so grim. Then, two years after Nzinga had concluded her treaty with the Portuguese, her brother, the Ngola, died in mysterious circumstances, although any role that Nzinga may have played is unclear. Of course, being a woman meant that few were ready to support Nzinga’s claim to the throne, and although she claimed that being the biological child of her father made her a better contender than some aristocrats, she also had to contend with the fact that her mother had been a slave. Legitimacy was not her only problem. The death of her brother had led to the Portuguese vassalization of Ndongo, and installation of Hari, called Felipe I after his baptism, as a puppet ruler. Once more, Nzinga found herself without a state or base of power. And once more, Nzinga would not be stopped by the mere exigencies and constraints of material reality. She would prove, once and for all, that when Nzinga wills, she forces her way.